antique textiles Dales swaving Uncategorized

I Was Too Far Out All My Life; Not Swaving But Drowning II.

Courtesy Yorkshire Waterways Museum, Goole


That title’s with apologies to Stevie Smith.

Today, an interruption in putting up photos of the gansey patterns in ‘River Ganseys’.

Thought I’d put everything I have about swaving here, in one post.

This is ongoing research and by no means complete so not the last word on the subject- just the first few tentative words. But it may be easier to have this in one place as a jumping off point for other researchers.



Striking t’loop is simply another term for swaving. But what was swaving?


All this time, their knitting goes on with unremitting speed. They sit rocking to and fro, like so many weird wizards. They burn no candle, but knit by the light of the peat fire. And this rocking motion is connected with a mode of knitting peculiar to the place, called swaving; which is difficult to describe.  Ordinary knitting is performed by a variety of little motions, but this is a single uniform tossing motion of both hands at once, and the body often accompanying it, with a sympathetic action…

William Howitt, The Rural Life of England, Volume 1


Howitt’s 1838 account of swaving remains the only contemporaneous one – and so is often quoted.  Yet even experienced knitters find it hard to figure out exactly what swaving would look like. Here’s where a 1956 Dalesman article comes in handy:


“Mrs Cornthwaite, of Sedbergh, was taught to knit by her grandmother, Mrs Dinsdale, who as a child attended a knitting school at Blandses Farm, Frostrow, now in ruins. Mrs Cornthwaite showed me how, with knitting stick and curved needles, the ‘swaving’ movement, called ‘strikin’ t’loop’, was done.

“The skillful downward turn of the curved needle-ends, with the index finger of the right hand ready with the ‘wosset’ (worsted) for them to catch and carry as they turned upwards, reduced the movements to two. This upward and downward movement appears to be merely a sort of shaking of the knitting. ‘Strikin’ t’loop’ was possible only when the knitting was plain. not ribbed pattern. Clever knitters could ‘strike t’loop’ in reverse, producing purl stitch…”


humber k & s
Image Courtesy Humber Keel & Sloop Society. River ganseys often have unpatterned lower halves which would lend themselves to a quick swave!


In one paragraph, Mrs Cornthwaite tells us what William Howitt, the non-knitter, couldn’t: that swaving was only possible for plain stocking stitch fabrics and most easily on knit rounds so less easy for knitters like me, who knit inside out/prefer to purl.


Presumably, when they got to the ribs or any patterns, the swavers stopped still. Some contemporary traditional knitters have tried to recapture swaving as an art, but with only Howitt’s words for reference, have missed this essential piece of information – that swaving was only used for plain (stockinette) knitting.


Swaving appears to have broken knitting down into two actions. This also neatly tells us that the curved needles pointed downwards – and these, in particular, were the ones referred to as ‘pricks’ although just to be confusing the term was sometimes used for any needles. Another fact that has never been made clear, before. So the yarn was tensioned in the right hand, and the curved needles angled in such a way that they struck the loop.


Writing in 1970, Marie Hartley said in researching the book she only met and saw one knitter in action:


“‘… We found and saw one person knitting in the old way, Mrs Crabtree of Flintergill, Dent, then in her 79th year. We were told to go and see her, and when we knocked at her door she opened it with her knitting in her hand and a knitting stick tucked in her apron band.

“We regret that we did not meet her sister, Polly Stephenson, who also used the ‘swaving’ action in knitting…The swift execution in knitting was achieved by the exponent being taught as a child, often by her father. We wish that we had borrowed a cine camera and recorded Mrs Crabtree in action, for this skill is something which has gone, never to be seen again in the Yorkshire Dales…’”

Quest for the Hand-Knitters, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby


More than once, years after their research in the late 1940s, Marie and Joan wished they’d filmed the swaving.


Swaving or strikin’ t’loop – would also only be possible when sitting down. It was called ‘weaving’ in Swaledale [Old Hand-knitters of the Dales].


“…Mrs Crabtree, who is seventy-nine, is one of the very few people who can still knit in the old way. This in Dent is called ‘swaving’, meaning the up and down motion of the arms and body. We were shown how to do it; but it was not easy even to see the loops as they slipped from one needle to another. When we complimented her on the speed of her knitting, she only shook her head, and said that she was always one of the lazy ones, but that ‘My mother’s needles fair made music.’”

The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales, Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby,  p.82].


In 1981, Kathleen Kinder and the Editor of Dalesman magazine, watched Clara Sedgwick at work, hoping she could work up enough speed to swave:


…It was quite a thrill to watch Mrs Sedgwick knit in the old way. Had she got up speed, she would have had to have ‘swayed’ [sic] backwards and forwards, to knock the formed stitches off the needle held in the left hand, on to the one supported by the stick…”



Credit: P Hunt.  Snapshot taken at Filey Museum. “She used a knitting ‘shear’ (sheath), the case of which was made of print about 9 inches long and filled with little sticks…”  Gladys Thompson,  ‘Guernsey and Jersey Patterns’, 1955, p33. Describing a Flamborough knitter. The leather shear in this picture, would simply be more robust than ‘print’ (cotton). This is filled with goose quills.


Swaving With Knitting Sticks

The sticks used along with short, curved needles for swaving, were standard sized (generally around 8”) sticks. Larger, plainer sticks were reserved for knitting with bump yarn. Knitting with bump was common amongst the navvies’ and miners’ wives up in the Dales and further afield, across Yorkshire:


“..A large, clumsy-looking stick, usually plain, was used for bump knitting ..”


That said, it appears you could swave without a knitting stick. No special ‘tools’ were needed. A comment on my blog a while back, from someone who saw swaving in Pateley Bridge, mentioned the fact the lady had no knitting stick. Gladys Thompson describes a particularly fast knitter as knitting with the working needle tucked under one arm. For the convulsive, simultaneously both arms kind of movement  – striking the loop at the right angle for it to fell easily from the needle – a stick would still be a matter of choice.

A curved needle pivots in the hole inside a knitting stick and this would make swaving easier but at least one eye witness tells us they have seen swaving with no knitting stick. With the working needle anchored somehow – even just braced against the knitter’s body – it would work.

Whilst long needles were usually (not always) used for knitting larger objects like jumpers – several of the 1950s’ knitters interviewed in various editions of Dalesman magazine, seem to have implied that swaving was usually done on shorter needles. It would be ideal for lengthy sections of stocking, for example.

As you could only swave when knitting a plain section, it is clearly out of the question for many ganseys with their relief patterns of plain and purls.  I think we can forget it, in the context of ganseys – except for those with stocking stitch lower bodies and arms.  It also may explain why some ganseys are only half-patterned. You could knit the plain section faster!  Also, it may be no coincidence that swaving was taught in the inland Yorkshire knitting schools and that inland (river) ganseys more commonly have a plain section in the lower half of the body…


“Striking t’loop” merely seems to have been a phrase interchangeable with ‘swaving’. It makes sense as anyone who’s used a knitting stick knows, if you hit the next stitch at the right angle/speed, it almost flies itself off the left needle and onto the working needle.

“Swave” is a lost Yorkshire dialect word; so obscure that even the more obscure reaches of the ‘Transactions of the Yorkshire Dialect Society’ couldn’t give many clues. When I couldn’t find anything cognate in the most definitive Anglo Saxon dictionaries, I knew it was probably a medieval (later) word.  If it was interchangeable with “weaving” then that points to a possible cognate.


Courtesy Dales Countryside Museum. Notice needles were blunt and pointier; various gauges. No One True Way of doing things.  1950s’ Dales knitters reported that sometimes they changed from curved to straights mid-project which might imply swaving for a bit, then… not!


I have looked for “swave” in all kinds of obscure books and journals on Yorkshire dialect. Including Specimens of the Yorkshire Dialect To which is added a GLOSSARY of Such of the Yorkshire words As Are Likely not to be understood by those UNACQUAINTED with the Dialect (Anon, Published Knaresborough, 1810, Price 6d). With no luck. Although I passed a very pleasant afternoon at York Reference Library, distracted by that tiny book and it’s always a joy to hold the actual book in your hand.


I finally struck gold in “Yorkshire Words Today. A Glossary of Regional Dialect” David Paynter, Clive Upton & J.D.A Widdowson [Yorkshire Dialect Society, 1997].

Sway-pole  n. see-saw. West Riding.

Sway, various dialects use in Scotland, England…also Lakeland. ‘a see-saw’.

I am taking a leap and betting money that ‘swave’ comes from the late Middle English “sway”, “To cause to move back and forward, side to side” [Shorter OED]. In our context, it means “to rock” like a see-saw. Which is supported by Howitt’s famous observation of the “weird wizards” who were “rocking to and fro”.  Given that definition, it may have had a more scatalogical implication, too.

To sum up, we can say:

  1. “Swaving” means “rocking back and forth”
  2. Swaving was only done on plain stocking stitch (stockinette) rounds/rows
  3. Swaving with usually – not necessarily always – done with curved needles.
  4. Swaving was usually – but not always –  done with a knitting stick. The knitter might also anchor the working needle under their arm, for example.
  5. The phrase “striking t’loop” (striking the loop) was another term for ‘swaving’.
  6. Swaving was done to pick up speed
  7. Swaving was usually – not always – done with shorter needles
  8. Swaving appears to have been a standard technique taught at the Yorkshire ‘Knitting schools’ – most of which were inland, on farms. We have no hard proof that as a technique it ever migrated to the coast. Although it is likely it did, given that we’re uncovering links between the inland knitting schools and coastal knitting schools.




Writer, crafter, textile historian, machine knitter, handspinner and dyer.

4 replies on “I Was Too Far Out All My Life; Not Swaving But Drowning II.”

I’ve just finished reading The Old Hand-Knitters of the Dales and am curious about bump – what weight yarn was it, what gauge was it worked up at – that sort of thing. I can only imagine that if it was a hefty worsted and worked on larger needles, those zipping through 200 stitches minute would have rope burn if they tensioned the yarn through their fingers! At even a half-stitch an inch, that’s almost 3 yards a minute snaking around or across one’s digits…


I have had Mary Wright’s Cornish guernsey book since it was first written and was intrigued by the speed of the old knitting, nearly 200 stitches per minute. Back in the late ’70s I made myself a knitting stick out of a length of kindling and made a guernsey. I did get to knit quite fast but had no way of knowing what gave the original knitters their speed; however I continued to use that knitting stick, now I have a leather pouch and worked a way of knitting with just 2 motions per stitch. Reading the old Hand Knitters of the Dales recently gave me a bit more insight and I continue to experiment.
Some years ago I purchased some old steel dpns on Ebay and among them is a four set of blunted knitting needles as you mention above. I am knitting socks on them now. Knitting at the tips is easy.
I look forward to further books from you!
By the way, the photo on the back dust cover of my Michael Pearson’s Traditional Knitting shows a fisherman wearing what must be bump stockings, over his trousers, reaching his thigh to protect his legs from his sea boots, and would make donning his seaboots so much easier. His seaboots in the picture have been folded down. This could explain why they were knitted so big.
regards, Lorna


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